About Dunstone Design

Dunstone Design is one of Australia's most respected bespoke furniture makers, and caters to those who appreciate beautifully crafted and well designed pieces. At the heart of Dunstone Design is designer, craftsman, educator and writer Evan Dunstone. Evan is a 2001 Churchill Fellow in contemporary chair design and manufacture. He has travelled widely and worked with some of the finest craftsmen in the English speaking world.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

An identity crisis in the Australian craft movement?

There has been an identity crisis in the Australian craft movement that has been amplified in recent years by the downturn in the retail economy. The term “craft” has been un-sexy for some time, so in recent years there has been an effort to re-lable the work of craft makers by tacking on the word “design” to what they do. Craft centers and bodies are now “craft and design” centers and bodies. It won’t be long before the word craft is dropped all together in favour of the more palatable word design.
The difficulty with this concept is that craft practitioners respond to the strengths and limitations of specific materials, and they “design” within these constraints. It is essentially a conservative field in this respect. Most craft practitioners actually enjoy the limitations of the material they are working with. The true craftsperson has a visceral relationship with a specific material that does not necessarily transfer across materials or to different methods of production. To many people the word “design” has come to mean a fully resolved object that can be manufactured reliably ad-infinitum, while “craft” just means something that is made slowly, self-indulgently and with an unpredictable risk to the purchaser.
Craft is popular to do as a hobby, because it is personally satisfying.  It is unpopular to buy, because it is relatively expensive (due to the high personal labour content), and too “accessible” (doesn’t “everyone” do craft? Couldn’t I make that?). There is also the assumption by many that craft makers are stubbornly hanging on to some medieval method of production for reasons of self-indulgent enjoyment.
Design is not a hobby in quite the same way as craft; it is something that a “professional” does. Designers have their work made by big industrial organizations. Design is even seen as some how democratic, by bringing cheap quality goods to the masses.
The tension between craft and design can perhaps be demonstrated by exploring the tension between  theatre and cinema. Theatre and cinema are superficially the same thing; telling a story to an audience using a scrip and actors, yet there are some big fundamental differences.  Theatre has all the downsides of craft; It is a popular hobby, it is labour intensive, each individual performance (even of a “successful” play) can “fail” unpredictably and disappoint the audience. There is an intrinsic limit to the number of performances that an individual can make and there is a limit to the number of people who can physically see a particular performance. The biggest difference between craft and theatre is that a successful craft piece is enduring, while a piece of theatre is ephemeral.
Theatre has some of the upsides of craft as well. A play can be relatively cheap to put on initially, and can be scaled up (within limits) in proportion to its success.  When a piece of theatre is very successful, the audience has a disproportionately powerful experience. By comparison, craft practitioners can usually work from very modest spaces initially and make things that have a much stronger connection with people than broadly manufactured work.
Cinema, by contrast to theatre, requires a comparatively large amount of money to produce. This largely excludes it as a hobby, keeping it “special” and “out of reach” (although technology might be changing that). Almost everyone has been in a play at some time in their life, but how many people have been in a film? Even a “small” budget (professional) film is significantly more expensive than most large budget live theatre. The economy of scale is much greater in film than theatre because of the potential audience. An individual actor or director can spread their value, thus focus their income. When successful, a film can generate a lot of money for investors, out of all proportion to theatre.
In further comparison, it is generally accepted that professional theatre actors “work harder” are “more dedicated” are “better actors” and are “paid less” than film actors. Again, the parallels between craft designer/makers and industrial designers/industry are strong.
So why does professional theatre endure? Why don’t all actors work in film? Why does society care about theatre? It will endure for the same reason that craft work will always endure; it is such a human thing to do.
Craft work is undergoing the same economic and cultural shock that theatre went through at the introduction of film. All the previously “good enough” participants are falling by the wayside (hurried along by the general malaise in the retail economy). It currently looks like a landslide, because so many are falling. All that will remain will be a small core of very dedicated, very hardworking and very good professional craftspeople. Ever so slowly, there will be a gradual return to an appreciation of craft work. Gone will be the “jobbing” makers, but the remaining craftspeople should gain more respect within society.
The crafts have much to learn about pricing philosophy from the theatre/cinema example. Show for show, cinema has always been significantly cheaper than theatre. Interestingly, cinema has always been a “fixed price” (attending a movie in a specific cinema is the same price irrespective of the movie you actually see. Only an individual’s age and the chosen session times will affect price). By contrast, theatre has a sliding scale of admission pricing. Theatre ranges from free through to very expensive, with every price point imaginable in between. No one expects every show held in a particular theatre to be offered at a uniform price. At some point, theatre got over worrying about comparing its cost price to cinema and started pricing itself relative to other theatre. In other words, the price of theater tickets now gives people a pretty clear indication of the level of theatre a punter is about to see. The crafts need to be less worried about pricing against industry and more concerned about comparative pricing within craft.
Craft and theatre usually comes from the practitioners up, and thus can carry many agendas. Like Theatre practitioners, many craftspeople (mostly non-professionals) think that craft work can be a “cultural good” and they want to “share it with everyone”. Cinema, like industry, comes from the investors down, so their priority/motivation is to make money; they don’t want to “share” anything! Cinema and industry have much clearer agendas than theater/craft. Theater and craft practitioners are notoriously difficult to work with as a collective group, because their agendas are often so complex and contradictory. Cinema and industry have much clearer and more common needs.
Just as good theatre often makes bad cinema, good craft design often results in bad manufactured items. It is a fallacy to think that craftspeople will make good designers for industry. A craftsperson has a relationship with material that does not necessarily translate to industry. A craftsperson battles with the idiosyncrasies of material, while industry strives to eliminate those idiosyncrasies. For craft schools or bodies to try and switch midstream to becoming design schools or bodies is as sensible as the Royal Shakespeare company switching to cinema.
Craft and industry, like theatre and cinema, are separate approaches to the same basic problem, but the overlap is marginal and often misleading. Simply sticking a camera in front of a theatre performance doesn’t make it cinema. Asking a craftsperson to forgo their relationship with material and focus just on form and function is to misunderstand the nature of craftsmanship.
We in the crafts must stick to our guns and keep making work that connects with our audience through our understanding of material.

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